How blockbuster movies can help you make the perfect fundraising ask

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Universal challenge

Let’s go to the movies! And when we go, what will we see? If it’s a blockbuster, we’ll often see a similar underlying story. It’s called the hero’s journey.

The hero’s journey is a universal story. It’s found across cultures, lands, and times. This universal journey is launched with a challenge. That challenge is the “call to adventure.” The prospective hero must choose:

  • Stay in his small, self-focused, ordinary world, or
  • Go on a costly adventure to impact the larger world.

The journey won’t be easy. It will require sacrifice. But there is a hope of victory. Along the way, a guiding sage will help the hero. This sage will introduce the hero to friends, allies, and magical instruments.

Ultimately, the hero will prevail. He will return victorious, bringing a gift to enhance his original world. Through the journey, his original identity will become a new, enhanced identity. Externally, he will be honored. Internally, he will be transformed.

Universal steps: Identity, challenge, victory

Joseph Campbell calls this story the “monomyth.” He summarizes it as, (1) “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day” (2) “into a region of supernatural wonder:” (3) “fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won:” (4) “the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”[1]

This hero story describes an identity enhancement journey. It progresses through

A box and arrow diagram where "Original identity"​ links to "Challenge"​ links to "Victory"​ links to "Enhanced Identity"​

 

Or, as a cycle,

  1. The journey starts in the ordinary world. This is the source of the hero’s original identity defined by his people, values, and life story.
  2. The decision to venture forth into a new world is the challenge.
  3. Accepting this challenge ultimately results in a victory.
  4. The hero then returns with a gift to improve his original world. His journey enhances that world (the source of his people, values, and life story). It enhances his standing within that world. His victory results in public honor and private transformation. It leads to an enhanced identity.
Fundraising challenge

In fundraising, advancing the donor’s hero story is powerful. It can inspire major, transformational gifts. As in every hero story, the journey is launched with a challenge.

This fundraising “call to adventure” happens at the “ask.” It presents a choice to either

  • Stay in the small, self-focused, ordinary world of personal consumption, or
  • Go on a costly adventure to impact the larger world through philanthropy.

The heroic fundraising ask will include each story element.

  1. The donor’s original identity (from his people, values, or life story) will inspire accepting the challenge.
  2. It will be a heroic challenge. The choice will be costly. It will require sacrifice.
  3. The challenge will promise a victory.
  4. The promised victory will enhance the donor’s identity. It will protect people or values linked to his identity. It will improve his external or internal reputation.

The heroic ask links identity, challenge, and victory.

What does such an epic ask look like? We’ll look at some fundraising examples. But first, let’s go to the movies! The classic monomyth films demonstrate these heroic ask elements.

The “call to adventure”: Let’s go to the movies

Star Wars, The Hobbit, and The Matrix are all classic monomyth films. They’re also the highest grossing movie franchises of their times.[2] In all three, the guiding sage delivers the “call to adventure.” The sage challenges the prospective hero:

Leave behind your small, self-focused, ordinary world!

Go on a costly adventure to make an impact for good in the larger word!

The challenge is clear. It’s a simple, yes-or-no choice. It’s not easy. It’s a big ask. But the challenge promises the hope of victory. And in each case, the sage links the challenge to the prospective hero’s identity. The message is this:

Take this challenge because of who you are! [your people, your values, and your life story]

The monomyth “call to adventure” matches the compelling fundraising ask. These movie scenes reveal an archetypal pattern for real-world fundraising.

Star Wars “call to adventure”

Identity comes from one’s life story, people, and values. The “call to adventure” scene in Star Wars begins there. It begins with the prospective hero’s life story and people. It begins with Luke’s family.

LUKE: How did my father die?

OBI-WAN: A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father. Now the Jedi are all but extinct.[3]

The life story continues by including values.

OBI-WAN: Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force.

LUKE: The Force?

OBI-WAN: Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.[4]

Luke then hears the clear, simple challenge. It comes first from Leia.

LEIA: I have placed information vital to the survival of the Rebellion into the memory systems of this R2 unit … You must see this droid safely delivered to him on Alderaan. This is our most desperate hour. Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.[5]

And then from Obi-Wan,

OBI-WAN: You must learn the ways of the Force if you’re to come with me to Alderaan.

LUKE: Alderaan? I’m not going to Alderaan. I’ve got to go home. It’s late, I’m in for it as it is.

OBI-WAN: I need your help, Luke. She needs your help.[6]

The challenge is clear. Leave behind the small, self-focused world of farming. Make an impact for good in the larger world. It is a stark “yes” or “no” decision. The challenge is immediate. The crisis/opportunity is now.

This challenge links with Luke’s identity (people, values, and life story). It links with the story of his father. It includes the spiritual values from that life story.

The challenge promises a victory – saving the rebellion. This victory links back to Luke’s people and values. The rebellion fights against his father’s murderer (people). It fights the dark side (values).

The promised victory is personally meaningful. It is meaningful because of who he is. It is meaningful because of his family, values, and life story. It is also meaningful because of who he will become. The promised victory requires learning “the ways of the force.” The journey will lead to a personal transformation.

The decision to accept the challenge isn’t a mathematical cost/benefit analysis. It is a matter of identity. Luke must accept the challenge because of who he is. He must accept because of his family, values, and life story.

Like the epic fundraising ask, this “call to adventure” makes a clear challenge. It links the prospective hero’s identity to the challenge. The challenge promises a victory. The victory promises an enhanced identity.

The Hobbit “call to adventure”

In The Hobbit, Gandalf arrives in the shire. He immediately makes a naked “call to adventure.”

BILBO: Can I help you?

GANDALF: That remains to be seen. I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure.

BILBO: An adventure? No, I don’t imagine anyone west of Bree would have much interest in adventures. Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner. Heh, heh. Mm. Huh. Hmm. Oh. Ah. Good morning.[7]

Gandalf makes the challenge. Bilbo says “no.” Gandalf is unfazed. (This initial refusal is a normal part of the monomyth story.)[8] Gandalf responds. He responds with identity connections (people, values, and life story). He mentions Bilbo’s mother. He mentions Bilbo’s earlier life.

GANDALF: To think that I should have lived to be “good morninged” by Belladonna Took’s son as if I were selling buttons at the door.

BILBO: Beg your pardon?

GANDALF: You’ve changed, and not entirely for the better, Bilbo Baggins.[9]

The full “call to adventure” scene happens later. Gandalf brings a large audience to Bilbo’s house. Each of them has already committed to the challenge. Their leader explains why his people, values, and life story compelled him to accept the challenge.[10]

Gandalf lays out the challenge with a map – his proposal document! It is a quest with enemies, a treasure, and an epic victory. His presentation even ends with a formal contract to sign!

The challenge is clear. Leave behind the small self-focused world of the shire. Go on an adventure to impact the larger world. It is urgent. The group is leaving in the morning.[11] It is a stark “yes” or “no” decision.

Bilbo resists. Gandalf again appeals to Bilbo’s identity. He mentions Bilbo’s life story.

GANDALF: I remember a young Hobbit who was always running off in search of Elves in the woods. Who would stay out late, come home after dark … trailing mud and twigs and fireflies. A young Hobbit who would have liked nothing better than to find out what was beyond the borders of the Shire. The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there.[12]

Again, Bilbo resists. Again, Gandalf appeals to Bilbo’s identity. He mentions Bilbo’s family history.

BILBO: I can’t just go running off into the blue. I am a Baggins of Bag-end.

GANDALF: You are also a Took. Did you know that your great-great-great-great-uncle Bullroarer Took was so large, he could ride a real horse?

BILBO: Yes.

GANDALF: Yes, well, he could. In the Battle of Green Fields, he charged the Goblin ranks. He swung his club so hard, it knocked the Goblin king’s head clean off …[13]

Bilbo consistently resists with rational cost/benefit analysis. Gandalf consistently responds by focusing on Bilbo’s identity. He highlights the people, values, and life story elements that support taking the challenge.

Bilbo must accept the challenge because of who he is. His identity compels him to say “yes.” This includes Bilbo’s life story – his adventuresome youth searching for elves. It includes his people – his ancestor who defeated the Goblin king. It is spurred on by an audience of others committed to this same challenge.

Bilbo also must accept the challenge because of who he will become. The promised victory will lead to an enhanced identity.

GANDALF: You’ll have a tale or two to tell of your own when you come back.

BILBO: Can you promise that I will come back?

GANDALF: No, and if you do … you will not be the same.[14]

Like the epic fundraising ask, this “call to adventure” makes a clear challenge. It links the prospective hero’s identity to that challenge. That challenge promises a victory. That victory promises an enhanced identity.

The Matrix “call to adventure”

Perhaps the most famous decision scene comes from The Matrix. The guiding sage Morpheus says, “This is your last chance. After this, there is no going back. You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”[15]

The challenge is clear. Leave behind the ordinary world. Go on an adventure down the “rabbit-hole.” It is urgent. (“This is your last chance.”) It is a stark “yes” or “no” decision.

But just before this challenge, Morpheus focuses on Neo’s identity and life story. He says, “Let me tell you why you are here. You have come because you know something. What you know you can’t explain but you feel it. You’ve felt it your whole life, felt that something is wrong with the world…. You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind.”[16]

Morpheus reveals Neo’s identity as a life-long prisoner. This identity compels Neo to take the challenge. Unless he takes the challenge, his identity will not change.

The epic challenge elements

In each of these films, the guiding sage presents a heroic challenge. It is a stark “yes” or “no” choice. There is no “just a little bit” option.

Each challenge comes with a deadline. The threat or opportunity forces a choice. There is no “maybe someday” option.

The decision is clear. But the choice is not a matter of statistically analyzing pros and cons. It is a matter of identity. The guiding sage shows the identity elements (life story, people, and values) that support taking the challenge. The sage’s message is this:

“You are the kind of person who accepts a challenge like this.”

The epic “call to adventure” links identity, challenge, and victory. The hero’s identity compels him to accept the challenge (Identity → Challenge). The challenge promises a victory (Challenge → Victory). The victory is personally meaningful because of the hero’s identity (Victory → Identity). The epic “call to adventure” includes the full story cycle. The compelling fundraising “ask” does the same.

The story cycle ask: Identity, challenge, and victory

The fundraising ask itself can verify each link in the story cycle.

A circular diagram where "Identity"​ (bottom left) links with an arrow labeled as [1] pointing to "Challenge"​ (top middle) which links with an arrow labeled as [3] pointing to "Victory"​ (bottom right) which links with a backwards arrow labeled [2] pointing back to "Identity"​

It can do this in just three sentences.
[1] Identity → Challenge sentence
“You have … [here describe a connection with the donor’s identity].”

[2] Victory → Identity sentence
“You understand … [here describe how the victory would be meaningful to the donor].”

[3] Challenge → Victory sentence
“Would you consider a gift of $______ to … [here describe the promised victory]?”[17]

This might sound like the following:

[1] “You have changed so many lives through your support of our job training programs, just as your mother liked to say, ‘Giving people a hand up, not a handout.’” (Identity → Challenge)
[2] “You understand how this new technology center could provide real opportunities for young people who start out with nothing but a willingness to work hard, just like you did.” (Victory → Identity)
[3] “Would you consider a gift of $100,000 as one of our leadership-level donors to help transform our community in this way?” (Challenge → Victory)

[1] “You have meant so much to this football program since your days as a player over thirty years ago.” (Identity → Challenge)
[2] “You understand how this new stadium expansion would launch our program onto the national stage.” (Victory → Identity)
[3] “Would you consider a gift of $2 million to lead the campaign to make this a reality?” (Challenge → Victory)

[1] “You have been so dedicated to improving the lives of patients at this hospital going back even before your own father received care here.” (Identity → Challenge)
[2] “You understand how this new ‘Campaign against Cancer’ can change the lives of so many right here in our community.” (Victory → Identity)
[3] “Would you consider a gift of $100,000 to help fund next year’s screening clinics?” (Challenge → Victory)

[1] “You have been well known in this community as an advocate for our youth summer camps.” (Identity → Challenge)
[2] “You understand how camp scholarships change the lives of young people, giving them a chance to learn and grow just as you did in your youth.” (Victory → Identity)
[3] “Would you consider a gift of $50,000 to create the Smith Family Permanent Endowed Scholarship Fund to give that opportunity to future generations of campers?” (Challenge → Victory)

These asks include the full story cycle. They link identity, challenge, and victory. This can make them deeply compelling.

The epic fundraising challenge: Heroic amount

How else does epic story inform practical fundraising? In story, the prospective hero faces a stark choice. It is a “yes” or “no” decision. In fundraising, this means asking for a specific amount.

But how much? In story, the heroic decision is difficult. The challenge is hard. In fundraising, a heroic donation is not a quick and easy choice. To make a meaningful story, the gift must be a meaningful amount. The heroic donation is a sacrificial gift. It is a “stretch” gift.

What is this number? Some charities have the research to estimate donor capacity. When the estimate is correct, the right number is simple. It’s 100% of capacity. All hero stories require 100% of the hero’s capacity.

But what if we have no idea? We could guess.[18] A major gift is typically ten to twenty-five times regular annual giving.[19] Or we might first share stories of others’ gifts. This is a conversational way to introduce a gift menu. Each menu option has a price. A donor’s reaction to the amounts can hint at what is possible.

Why not just leave it open? You might say, “Give what you can. Anything helps.”

But this doesn’t work. It won’t inspire a major gift. It doesn’t work because it isn’t a heroic challenge. It’s begging. It’s not a call to adventure. It’s a call to convenience. It’s a mundane choice in a mundane story. That story won’t motivate a major gift.

The epic fundraising challenge: Heroic audience

The guiding sage can make the “call to adventure” alone. But, as in The Hobbit, it can help to have the right audience. Gandalf makes the final request at a dinner. The guests have already accepted the challenge. They share why they have done so.

This can work in fundraising too. Peers (or aspirational peers) who have already pledged are a great audience. As in The Hobbit, they can share why they have accepted the challenge. They can create a donor community of fellow adventurers.

The epic fundraising challenge: The guiding sage makes the ask

Audience members can help. But they do not make the ask. During the moment of the ask, the audience role is to be present and be silent. As Holly Million explains, “At this time, the board member … should pretend to be deer caught in headlights. No motion, no comments. The temptation will be great to break the silence and reduce the awkwardness, but everyone needs to shut up.”[20]

Coordinating this silence is important. Thus, “not having prearranged signals between solicitation members” can be a key roadblock to a successful ask.[21]

Making the ask is not the role of the fellow donor. It’s the role of the guiding sage fundraiser. Delivering the compelling “call to adventure” requires experience and expertise.

Conclusion: Advance the donor’s hero story

Knowing the full story cycle can lead to a better ask. It can also lead to a better follow-up. A “no” is not the end of the story. It’s a normal step in the hero’s journey. The “yes” often comes later.

And a “yes” is not the end of the story, either. The charity must still deliver a victory and enhanced identity. Otherwise, it’s not finishing the story. That’s an experience the donor is unlikely to repeat.

The “one big thing” in fundraising is to advance the donor’s hero story. That story requires a fundraising ask. It requires a “call to adventure.” The elements of the effective “call to adventure” are also the elements of the effective ask.

The ideal challenge links to the prospective hero’s past identity. The challenge promises a future victory. The promised victory results in an enhanced identity. It provides private meaning or public reputation.

The ideal challenge comes from the hero’s guiding sage. The sage challenges with a heroic choice. Who is this sage? It is Obi-Wan, Gandalf, Morpheus … and you!

Footnotes:

[1] Campbell, J. (1949/2004). The hero with a thousand faces (commemorative ed.). Princeton University Press. p. 28. (The numerical separations do not appear in the text.)

[2] An argument for paying special attention to these scripts is that their success might suggest a resonance with underlying archetypal story elements from the collective unconscious. More simply, these are stories that – more than many thousands of others – worked. Thus, whether arrived at by studiously following the monomyth playbook (as with Star Wars), by artistic genius, or by random chance, the objective empirical reality is that these stories worked and thus merit special attention.

[3] Lucas, G. (January 15, 1976) STAR WARS Episode IV A NEW HOPE from the JOURNAL OF THE WHILLS, Revised Fourth Draft, https://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Star-Wars-A-New-Hope.html

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Walsh, F., Boyens, P., Jackson, P., & del Toro, G. (2012). The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Unofficial Transcript (based on the novel The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien). https://pjhobbitfilms.fandom.com/wiki/The_Hobbit:_An_Unexpected_Journey/Transcript

[8] See Campbell, J. (1949/2004). The hero with a thousand faces (commemorative ed.). Chapter I.2. Refusal of the call. Princeton University Press. p. 45-54. For the practical applications to fundraising see James, R. N., III. (2021) The Socratic fundraiser: Using questions to advance the donors hero story. Chapter 10. Socratic fundraising after the ask: Congratulations! You got a “no.”

[9] Walsh, F., Boyens, P., Jackson, P., & del Toro, G. (2012). The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Unofficial Transcript (based on the novel The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien). https://pjhobbitfilms.fandom.com/wiki/The_Hobbit:_An_Unexpected_Journey/Transcript

[10] Thorin: I would take each and every one of these dwarves over an army from the Iron Hills, for when I called upon them, they answered. Loyalty, honor, a willing heart. I can ask no more than that.

Balin: You don’t have to do this. You have a choice. You’ve done honorably by our people. You have built a new life for us in the Blue Mountains. A life of peace and plenty. A life that is worth more than all the gold in Erebor.

Thorin: From my grandfather to my father, this has come to me. They dreamt of the day when the dwarves of Erebor would reclaim their homeland. There is no choice, Balin. Not for me.

Id.

[11] The dialogue also includes, “Oin has read the portents, and the portents say: it is time.” Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Wachowski, L. & Wachowski, A. (1997). The Matrix screenplay. [Screenplay]. Warner Brothers Entertainment.

[16] Id.

[17] Three sentences adapted from Collins, M. E. (2017, Winter). The Ask. Advancing Philanthropy, 16-23, p. 21. Quoting Marcy Heim. See also, Heim, M. (2018, August 22). Wanna Do EVERYTHING Better? [Website] http://marcyheim.com/wanna-do-everything-better

[18] We could instead ask for “your best gift ever.” This has a floor of the donor’s previous largest gift. However, always avoid asking for “at least” a certain amount. This language devalues the target amount.

[19] Panas, J. (2020). Asking: A 59-minute guide to everything board members, volunteers, and staff must know to secure the gift. Emerson & Church. p. 58.

[20] Million, H. (2006) Fear-free fundraising: How to ask people for money, Independently published: BookSurge Publishing. p. 87.

[21] Ciconte, B. L. & Jacob, J. G. (2009). Fundraising basics: A complete guide. Jones & Bartlett Learning. p. 168.

 

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